The Cliff House
It stood at the top of a swell of land, the image of a wave about to crash sculpted by the hand of a titan out of earth and rock. The House’s front door looked down upon a view that reminded me of Vuillard’s “Window Overlooking the Woods,” lush countryside that rolled down and away before it into the distance. The back side of the House teetered over a vertigo-inspiring fall of thousands of feet, before mist obscured whatever bottom there might have been -- if there was one at all.
I have to admit, I felt bad about pushing the girl over the cliff when I first arrived here. She disappeared before she hit the mists, so I suppose no harm was done; just someone having another falling dream. I had freaked out a little when I realized that I’d somehow been transported away from the school. I had some intuition that while I was in the school, I had a connection with Harkness in the real world. Now that was gone.
I explored the area around the Cliff House (the capital letters clicked into my mind involuntarily) to confirm my sense that the exterior could not possibly be large enough to contain the sometimes cavernous rooms inside; after a while, I ranged farther afield to see if it was possible to reach any other landmarks on foot. However, no matter how far I walked, I never reached the outer edge of the sprawling field that lay outside the door of the House. The other features of the landscape retreated as I approached, and I gave up when I saw the length of the uphill hike behind me and the color of the sky, and felt the chill wind carrying the scent of snow on the wind.
Inside, the Cliff House was rarely the same from one day to the next. Vast, steaming kitchens; dining rooms for a hundred; opulent bedrooms; bathrooms with rococo tangles of bright brass plumbing; libraries and drawing rooms; laundries and linen cupboards: any of these might be behind any door. Dinner at the Cliff House was the only constant, inasmuch as it never ended. Elaborately decorated tables, polished silver laid out around chargers decorated in gold leaf scrollwork, before huge platters and tureens of Rockwell-esque holiday fare.
I was starting to become heartily sick of it. There was nothing else to be had, not even for breakfast or lunch; no matter how much food was served from the constantly busy kitchens, there was never anything in the cupboards when I searched but tins of cranberry sauce and pureed pumpkin.
As boring as the food was, the company was worse... every variety of family drama that ever took place around a holiday table played out every night, with a rotating cast of drunken fathers, bitter mothers, groping uncles, and grasping cousins.
Even so, my memory of being hungry in the School was still strong, and I didn’t want to be far from the only source of food that I knew of. Just waiting wasn’t going to work forever, though. Soon I would need to come up with something else.
* * *
On my third day at the Cliff House (I was guessing; the sky neither brightened nor dimmed here), I was in one of the libraries with two or three other dreamers. That’s when I saw my sister.
Before I had arrived in the dream world, I would have expected a dreamer to be a vague sleepwalker through a surrealist landscape. But apparently people don’t dream in Picasso. In fact, most of them act with urgency and purpose, just not always a purpose which is obvious or comprehensible.
Questioning the dreamers, as frustrating as it was, had provided some interesting information. Apparently, they all saw the Cliff House differently; while it was always a house of some sort, to some it appeared as a cottage, to others a tin shack, and so on. From the limited occasions on which I could overcome the language barrier with dreamers from other countries, I gathered that they saw the house as something fitting for their own culture. I suspected that I saw the Cliff House as a mansion because that was how the girl I came with saw it, but there was no way to be sure.
I was hoping the volumes in the library could tell me more about this dream world – specifically, how I got here, and if I could get somewhere else. Most of the books, though, were blank after a few pages of random text, while others were filled cover to cover with meaningless symbols. I suppose it would have been too much to hope for a tourist’s guide to the dream world.
When I turned to leave, Betsy was standing there. But gone was the haggard look she perpetually wore; no tell-tale bruises marked her cheeks or arms. A delighted smile instead graced her face, the kind I hadn’t seen since before her marriage. A diaphanous gown of fairy colors swirled around her.
“Matthew!” she said. “There you are!”
A little bit of an art lecture is in order. Corot’s “Wounded Eurydice” is a disturbing, heartbreaking painting. It shows the doomed wife of Orpheus, moments after the snakebite that would send her to Hades. She is seated, examining her stricken heel, and the sweet and mild look on her face makes clear that she has no idea what has just happened. Corot, however, assumed that the viewer would know what had happened and realize the inevitable events to follow; the painting inspires a horror far more gripping than a mere depiction of Eurydice in death could convey.
I felt a similar sensation seeing this numinous vision of Betsy, when I knew the misery that her real life held.
For a moment, I could not find my voice. Then, I stammered, “How did you find me here?”
She tilted her head to one side, the same gesture she made when she looked after me as a kid. “Don’t be ridiculous, Matt. You know I can always find you when you’re hiding.”
“I mean, did Dr. Harte send you here after me?”
“Doctor who? Matt, we don’t have time for your games. Mom and Dad are having our horses saddled; you’ll be late for your lesson.”
Of course, she was dreaming. Like so many of the others I’d seen at the Cliff House, she was dreaming of a rich life that she’d never had.
And of me, I realized. She was dreaming of me, so here she is. I hadn’t seen her in nine years, and we met again like this. At least I know she hasn’t forgotten about me.
I blinked away the moisture in my eyes. “You go ahead. Tell Mom I’ll be down in a minute. I just need to find my...my boots.”
“All right.” She turned to go.
She turned in the doorway. “Yeah, Matt?”
Tears started down my face. “You look wonderful. I miss you. Come see me soon.”
An puzzled smile quirked her face. “I won’t have to if you get your butt downstairs.” And then she was gone.
I wept as the dreamers continued their browsing.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 6.3]